Vietnam: Flashing Back and Forward

Books reviewed in this essay:

Jack McLean, Loon: A Marine Story (Ballantine Books, 2009)

Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011)

Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012)


Mourn for the Marines. Had our country only learned from “Mad Jack” Percival’s Vietnam strategy many a good marine who died a century later would instead have lived. Few Americans know that our nation’s first campaign in Vietnam occurred in 1845, and ended without bloodshed and with precious little international attention. The context of the incident was the celebratory world cruise of the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides” [1]. The ostensible mission of the world cruise was to signify America’s commitment to freedom of the sea – especially for well-armed American frigates.

Old Ironsides was commanded by Captain John Percival, nicknamed for his “impetuous behavior” as “Mad Jack” (Martin, 2012). Percival was a veteran of two major War of 1812 victories and reputedly was well loved by his crews.  Two U.S. Destroyers subsequently were named after him. Arriving in Tourane Bay (now, Da Nang) in the emirate of Cochin, Mad Jack’s request for a shore visit and replenishment of ship’s stores were graciously granted by the Cochin emperor. The emperor’s representative, accompanied by imperial troops, even held a formal “tea” honoring the Americans at Tourane.  At the tea, however, a note was smuggled to Mad Jack from a mysterious French missionary, self-reportedly a hostage of the emperor [2].

Eschewing diplomatic options for sussing out the fate of the missionary, a fellow “Christian in need” in Mad Jack’s mind, he suddenly took decisive military action against his hosts. Captain Percival reinforced his ship’s contingent of thirty marines with twenty of his most reliable sailors and led a gallant landing party to rescue the alleged captive.  But the disappointed shore party found no soldiers and only a few village officials, who were seized as counter-hostages. To Mad Jack’s frustration, the emperor ignored all his threats. From the shelter of his ship on Tourane Bay, two weeks later Mad Jack led Marines ashore to again find no one home. The lush tropical land that opened itself with a warm welcome had closed itself and now ignored the mightiest threat America had to offer. Utterly exasperated, Mad Jack lifted anchor and continued his international tour.

Mad Jack’s adventure is often cited as prefiguring on a smaller scale the landing of Marines on 8 March1965, that marked the official commitment of U.S. combat troops in the Vietnam War [3]. Only no Marines died in Mad Jack’s misadventure. Had there been instantaneous international communication, and a larger U.S. Navy, the result likely would have been a “Gulf of Tourane” Resolution and far greater investment of military resources. Had U.S. forces in 1965, as did Captain “Mad” Jack, realized the futility of trying to bend this Asian territory to their will with their, to say the least, limited military finesse, the enormous sufferings of the Marines in the three books reviewed here could have been entirely avoided.

The first “abandon all hope” inklings I had regarding Vietnam came via the first Marine combat veteran I encountered. I was a seventeen-year-old white boy hitchhiking on a hot, muggy day to junior college on Highway 90 near Pascagoula, Mississippi. For whatever reason this African-American Southerner picked me up for the most memorable ride I had in two years hitchhiking that stretch. Our discussion ranged from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the war in Vietnam. Dr. King for me was a heroic figure, but I was ambivalent about his statements that the U.S. should withdraw from Vietnam. Betraying little emotion, the driver said that Dr. King was correct, and that it was U.S. policy that needed changing. Only at that point did the driver (upon whom I desperately depended for the ride) reveal that he waded ashore at Da Nang with the 3rd battalion of the 9th Brigade of the U.S. Marines the previous year. In very unappealing terms, he described breaking his leg during the landing, and his subsequent discharge. He told me that I needed to learn more about Vietnam. For me, now a very serious student of Vietnam, the two Marlantes books and McLean’s memoir illustrate everything that the Highway 90 Marine, in a few well-chosen words, tried to warn me about.

Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War is a deeply personal account of dealing with his harrowing time as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam. Matterhorn is his novel about taking a hillside in 1968 in I (pronounced eye) Corps, the northernmost military quadrant of South Vietnam. Loon is a memoir of one Marine enlisted man helping to defend a similar location in I Corps in 1968. Marlantes says he wrote What It Is Like to Go to War “to come to terms with my own experience of combat.”  But he writes for “other combat veterans” or “young people contemplating joining the military or who are about to enter combat themselves.”  Marlantes aims to wise up the uninitiated with a rigorous examination of the impact of military service and war on soldiers.  Marlantes also hopes his work will serve as a “psychological and spiritual prophylactic” for those with service-connected Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and coping with other disjunctions between combat and life after combat.

Due to the Marines’ inordinate sacrifices in the name of this country, they deserve a better and more honest public hearing. Marines often reach out, but they know the sound of a socially forced silence. So whenever I hear a fellow veteran speak, I listen. Marlantes believes that in our society, “All conscientious citizens and especially those with the power to make policy will be better prepared to make decisions about committing young people to combat if they know what they are about to ask of them.”  The more aware citizens and our leaders are the more likely are we to diminish the occasions, and suffering, of war. The misery and the acute violence pervading Loon and Matterhorn are intense even for someone such as I who experienced other grim aspects of the Vietnam War. I am especially glad to review these books together.  Without McLean’s non-fiction account, Marlantes’ fiction might be just too wrenching for some readers to believe. I unhesitatingly and highly recommend all three of these books.

When I was just finishing Loon, I came across a review of Matterhorn. From the review I reckoned the books had to be a fictional and a non-fictional account of the same battle. I soon learned my error. Two different authors. Two different hilltops in I Corps.  Same year. Same kind of battle. In each case, Marine units were placed between the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and contested agricultural areas of Vietnam.  In both cases, the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army invested massive resources to kill those marines[3]. In Loon Jack McLean, who graduated from Harvard after returning from Vietnam, delves into his experiences as an enlisted marine. Currently a “Writer in Residence” at Fort Lee, New Jersey, Mclean writes in a concise crisp style worthy of the most savvy journalist.  Most of Loon is told in fairly chronological order. Where Loon is a well-crafted memoir Matterhorn is a novel written from the multiple perspectives of Lieutenants Mellas and Hawke and other members of Bravo Company, 5th Marines Battalion. The newbie Mellas and the thinly experienced Hawke are each an appealing mix of the innocence and ignorance that defines most junior military officers. The statuses of the lieutenants reflects the condition in Vietnam where clusters of people with the same rank could end up in the same spot but with different responsibilities and authority. Competition for leadership roles, and the shortage of leadership personnel, is an ongoing concern in Matterhorn as it really was in Vietnam.

The omniscient perspective of the storyteller and the telling of the story from the views of different characters, especially when placed starkly beside a more linear non-fictional work such as Loon, can be less than gripping. For me, Loon therefore was the more enjoyable reading experience, but I confess it is merely a matter of stylistic preference. Both writers are extremely adept at laying out stories and skillfully letting the reader pick up the point.  In What It’s Like to Go to War, Marlantes describes Zoomer, a wounded squad member, who through a long lonely night hovers between rescue and death while waiting for a medevac. Side by side with Zoomer’s plight Marlantes recalls his own boyhood in Oregon when he and his grandfather arduously hauled a seven-foot sturgeon into their fishing boat. The reader can’t help but get Marlantes’ comparison of a man’s and a fish’s struggles for the next breath.

McLean in his Foreword spans the distance between Vietnam and what vets called “the real world” back home by citing events in the U.S. when the grisly battle for Landing Zone Loon was waged. Again, military and civilian events are laid side by side and the common thread is unmistakable. Song lyrics by Lou Reed and John Cale, for example, describe the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol. At the same time that Warhol was shot, uptown at Columbia University a commencement speaker decries the role of violence in America. The speaker singled out the prolonged war in Vietnam as damaging profoundly the social fabric of American life. Ironically, he addresses a crowd depleted by graduates who already had walked out in protest of the war. The incident that most anchors us to the moment of the battle for Loon is the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. While Kennedy lay mortally wounded on a hotel kitchen floor, the first Marines were embarking to a nondescript patch of jungle where many of them would likewise lie bleeding and dying.

I have written elsewhere that race was always a thematic feature in Vietnam.  At the time Dr. King made his controversial case against Vietnam, African-Americans comprised ten percent of U.S. forces in Vietnam and took twenty percent of U.S. combat fatalities. Over time, perhaps as a result of Dr. King’s intervention or simply as a collective response to inequity, African-Americans made themselves, by a range of behaviors, less likely targets.  By the conclusion of the war, African-Americans had stabilized the differential fatality ratio, producing a final statistic that is used by apologists for the war to refute charges of discrimination by race in casualties.

On 4 April 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  McLean notes, “That morning, I became aware of a thin line that began to divide the black marines from the rest of us—nothing that ever manifested itself in combat, but a “something” that began to appear in a thousand little ways in our day-to-day lives. (p. 129)” McLean acknowledges the central role that race relations play in Vietnam. In Matterhorn race is a sinister omnipresent protagonist. For white NCOs white marines have medical problems while black marines are malingers. At one point in Matterhorn a genuinely ill black marine plots the death of a hostile white NCO. While race is pivotal in the ultimate tragedy here, Matterhorn could have been a stronger novel without Marlantes’ focus on black market activity, drug-trafficking, and militancy among black marines.  Let’s face it.  A young infantry lieutenant is going to have limited exposure to what black soldiers are thinking or doing.

In Vietnam racism against African-American soldiers was always perversely ‘balanced’ by racism against Vietnamese – soldiers and civilians, ally and enemy. Marlantes labels the process that makes it easier to kill and harm Vietnamese as pseudospeciation. In pseudospeciation, we create a false species that is innately different from our human species. Vietnamese became “gooks,” “zips,” or “dinks.”  By disassociating the Vietnamese from the human species, we are exempted from observing moral codes. Even the American public and especially American policy makers, became practitioners and purveyors of pseudospeciation.  Disassociation enabled moral sanctioning of indiscriminate napalming, bombing, and free fire zones. Marlantes fingers pseudospeciation as one aspect of warfare that must change if we are to make the conduct of war one that does not inherently corrupt and corrode the souls of all combatants.

In Marlantes’ list of odious phenomena is “lying” to which he devotes an entire chapter in What It’s Like. Vietnam (p. 114) “will be infamous for the way those who perpetrated it lied to those who fought and paid for it.”  This systemic dishonesty in waging war is rooted in the wider lack of “meaning” or purpose that characterized the war.  “Lack of overarching meaning encourages making things up, lying to fill up the gap in meaning.”  In Vietnam, there is no better example of lying than kill ratios and body count. Early on, in Matterhorn, we witness the body count “game” as each layer of the chain of command fudges upward the lies (body count) of the previous layer.  When there is a justifiable purpose attributed to why a war is waged, combat outcomes can be stated in a meaningful way as progress toward the goal. When there is no meaning, an artificial construct such as body count becomes a horrid substitute.

It’s not that body counts were entirely fictitious. McLean (p. 124) describes a life-jarring morning at the village of Cam Lo where he saw “dozens upon dozens of dead bodies stacked as high as they could be thrown.”  The body count was 160 and before him lay the evidence, a ghastly vision that would stay with him for life. Some lies were more insidious than even the body counts. McLean (p. 121) remembers his first exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant dismissed by authorities as harmless to people. Most soldiers had no immediate reaction but a few did develop rashes and discomforts.  Years later – later than McLean could have imagined as a young soldier – dioxin, the basic ingredient in Agent Orange, would generate heart disease, diabetes, and a host of cancerous tumors, in a new or renewed slaughter.

I have spoken with many marines about Vietnam but no one has added to my understanding of the works of Marlantes and McLean more than Robert Byrne. When another marine friend Robert Reeve heard that I was reviewing Matterhorn, he introduced me to Byrne, an enlisted member in Marlantes’ company. Byrne generously shared photos and his wealth of information with me [4].  Byrnes’ respect for Marlantes is steadfast. He recalls that Marlantes’ status as a Rhodes Scholar was a mark of pride for his unit. I also learned from Byrne that honchos in the Marines are well aware of the work of Marlantes and McLean.  In March 2013, a re-union of Marlantes’ company was held at Parris Island.  That a brigadier general attended the reunion suggests that Marlantes’ testimony about military service is having some impact among Marine Corps leadership.  I was pleased to learn that a special guest was Jack McLean.


There are still many for whom the lesson has not been learned. Take note of the use of Marines in Afghanistan. In spring 2010 the last Marine was removed from “Korangal Outpost” way out in an isolated area of Afghanistan. The Americans who fought there christened the bleak setting the “Valley of Death” (Rubin, 2010).  After its closing, some officials suggested that the outpost strategy had perhaps been a mistake.  The justification for pursuing this strategy was that the toll of marine casualties was outweighed by Taliban losses, and the marine entrenchments supposedly blocked the flow of fighters and supplies from neighboring Pakistan. Really? Mourn for the Marines.  Had our country learned anything at all from “Mad Jack” Percival’s Vietnam escapade, many a good Marine who died would have lived. Mourn for the Marines.



[1] “Old Ironsides,” the oldest warship in the U.S. Navy, narrowly escaped being de-commissioned in 1831.  The U.S.S. Constitution “Old Ironsides” was one of the success stories of the un-storied War of 1812.  She served as flagship of the U.S. fleet in the war against the Barbary pirates from 1803 to 1805. The reference to the “shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Corps Hymn refers to Marine actions in the first Barbary War. The Constitution’s nickname is attributed to a battle with the British frigate Guerrierre in 1812 where a seaman noting the strength of the Constitution’s hull in repelling enemy shot referred to the ship’s sides of iron.  The nickname was in common use by 1813 by the press and in naval reports. Oliver Wendell Holmes memorialized “Old Ironsides” in verse in 1831. The poem is often cited as an example of journalism influencing public policy.  In 1835 a re-fitting of the ship was completed. Old Ironsides is now on display in Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston Harbor. See Martin, Tyrone G., Commander, U. S. Navy (Ret.), “Old Ironsides” in Vietnam, U.S.S. Constitution Museum 2012.

[2]  Stanley Karnow in his Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983), pp. 69-70 identifies the French missionary as Dominique Lefebvre.  Father Lefebvre was a self-appointed agent of French colonization of Indochina.  Sentenced to death at least twice and spared each time by the emperor. According to Karnow, Lefebvre’s continued political intrigues finally led to France’s first attack on Vietnam and France’s adding Vietnam to its empire.

[3]  The amphibious part of the landing is described by participants. See Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (New York: Henry Holt and Company,1999) and historians (Karnow, 1983) as involving classes of Vietnamese  schoolgirls giving flowers to arriving marines.  Most of the marines were flown into Da Nang that day.

[4]  When I was looking through Byrne’s photographs, I immediately asked him to identify one marine.  In Chapter 1 of Matterhorn, the navy corpsman is struggling to save the life of a marine in whose urethra a leech had attached itself. I needed to see that guy alive for my own peace of mind.

[5] Bing West’s The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan (2011, New York: Random House) begins at the outpost at Korangal for his critique of U.S. missteps in the war in Afghanistan.


G. David Curry is Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri-St. Louis. He served as a captain in army counterintelligence in Vietnam and is a member of Vietnam Veterans Against The War.  He has a 30% service-connected disability for PTSD. He is author of Sunshine Patriots: Punishment and the Vietnam Offender.



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